Tag: terrorists

New Trump Executive Order Fails Cost-Benefit Test

President Trump extended, expanded, and made some important alterations to his earlier executive travel ban. However, the national security justification for the new order is just as weak as for the original order because it could only have prevented nine terrorists who planned domestic attacks, at the maximum, from entering. Since four of the nine terrorists were Iranian students in 1979 who would not have been banned under this order, it’s likely that it would have stopped only five terrorists from entering and saved zero lives if it was applied backward in time.

The Number of Immigrants, Migrants, and Travelers Impacted

Gauging the impact of this new executive order requires looking at the number of foreigners blocked by it. The following calculations are based on the number of visas issued at Foreign Service posts by the State Department in 2016. The number of visas issued by the State Department under this metric is different from the number of those who actually enter and yet still different from the number of actual admissions. The new regulations for Venezuelans only apply to tourists who are related to government officials. There is not a good way to estimate that so Table 1 leaves that category blank for Venezuela. Still, this gives a decent approximation of how President Trump’s new travel ban will impact the flows of immigrants, migrants, and travelers. 

If this new proclamation was active in 2016, it would have halted the travel, migration, or immigration of roughly 66,000 people from these eight countries (Table 1). That’s equal to about 0.6 percent of all visas issued by the State Department at Foreign Service posts in that year. About 58 percent of those blocked would have entered on tourist visas while about 39 percent were immigrants. 

Table 1

Visas Issued by Category/Type that are Banned under the New Executive Proclamation

Country Immigrant Visas Nonimmigrant Visas Total Visas in Banned Categories












North Korea
























Source: 2016 Visas Issued by the State Department.

The other way of measuring this is the number of admissions as calculated by the Department of Homeland Security. As a percentage of all admissions in 2015, the last year for which data is available that was not affected by President Trump’s previous executive orders, this new executive order would have stopped 0.04 percent of all admissions—or about 81,306 out of approximately 181,300,000 admissions. In relation to the number of visas issued and admissions, this new order will have a small impact.

Economic Effects

This section uses a simple method to estimate the economic effects of this executive order over the next decade. This method specifically calculates the immigration surplus which is the wage benefits that accrue to native-born Americans as a result of immigration.This only counts the new green card holders and ignores the tourists and economic effects of nonimmigrants. George Borjas estimates the immigration surplus at 0.24 percent of America’s $18.57 trillion GDP, which works out to an average of $1,018.95 in positive wage spillovers per immigrant in 2016.

If the ban continues to block 25,587 green cards each year for ten years then the total loss in wages to native-born Americans would be equal to about $1.4 billion. That’s a small percentage of GDP but it still does not pass a cost-benefit test. Blocking that many immigrants would have to save about 96 lives in thwarted terrorist attacks to be equal to the expected economic damage borne entirely by native-born Americans based on a high $15 million per statistical life saved valuation


President Trump’s new executive proclamation would not pass a cost-benefit test. Foreigners from those countries have killed zero people on American soil in terrorist attacks from 1975 through the end of 2015 and the 96 deaths that would have to be prevented are more than all of the non-9/11 domestic victims of foreign-born terrorism from 1975 through 2015. There are other costs associated with this new iteration of the travel ban such as the continuation of the cut in refugees that also impacts American wages negatively, fewer nonimmigrants, and a falloff in tourism as a result. It’s near-impossible for this to pass a cost-benefit test even when the welfare of immigrants, foreigners, and their American families are taken into account beyond the economic effects.




Post 9/11 America Is Remarkably Safe

Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks murdered 2,983 innocent people and remain the deadliest in world history by a factor of anywhere from 6.4 to 9.1 (many disagree whether the 1978 Cinema Rex fire in Iran that killed 470 people was terrorism). All of the 19 hijackers were foreign-born, 15 from Saudi Arabia, 2 from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Lebanon and Egypt. They all entered lawfully, 18 on tourist visas and 1 on a student visa.

Many folks prophesied a new world of near constant destructive terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that would frequently rival 9/11. These predictions were repeated so frequently that a version of the phrase “a post 9/11 world” became clichéd.  That vision of a terrible future never happened.

Remarkably, the chance of dying in a terrorist attack after 9/11, no matter the origin of the attacker, was actually lower in the post 9/11 world of 2002-2016 than it was in the pre-9/11 world (14 years before the attacks). After 9/11, the annual chance of being murdered in an attack on U.S. soil committed by any terrorist was about 1 in 26.4 million per year – far lower than the 1 in 16.9 million per year prior to 9/11. The chance of being murdered by U.S. born terrorists in a domestic attack also decreased after 9/11 as it fell from about 1 in 18.1 million a year to 1 in 37.9 million per year (Table 1).

Foreign-born terrorists murdered 26 people on U.S. soil since 9/11 through the end of 2016, meaning the chance of being murdered in one of those attacks was about 1 in 176.6 million per year. That is more than double the 12 who were murdered by foreign-born terrorists on U.S. soil in the 14 years prior to 2001. In those 14 years prior to 9/11, the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born attacker was about 1 in 302.3 million per year.

Table 1 - Annual Chance of Being Murdered in a Terrorist Attack by the Attacker’s Country of Origin and Time Period

Source: Author’s expansion of “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis.”

Obviously, a calculation of the terrorism risk over this entire time should include the murders committed by the 19 hijackers on 9/11, as I do here, here, and elsewhere. But the claim that the post-9/11 world is more deadly because those attacks jolted us into a new and more brutal terror equilibrium is simply not true (at least when considering domestic terrorism).

This post 9/11 safety effect could theoretically be the dividends of increased government anti-terror measures, though this is highly unlikely given this superb research on the lack of cost-benefit calculations in the allocation of anti-terrorism funding by experts John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart. The best explanation is that deadly terrorist attacks are rare because not many people are interested in killing strangers, most people who are interested in murdering strangers are incompetent, and many things have to happen for a terrorist attack to be successful – all while being chased by anti-terrorism police.  These four reasons, by themselves, explain why the risk is so small. We should all be thankful for that.

Have Terrorists Illegally Crossed the Border?

Yesterday, Cato published my policy analysis entitled “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis” where I, among other things, attempt to quantify the terrorist threat from immigrants by visa category. 

One of the best questions I received about it came from Daniel Griswold, the Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Program on the American Economy and Globalization at the Mercatus Center. Full disclosure: Dan used to run Cato’s immigration and trade department and he’s been a mentor to me. Dan asked me how many of the ten illegal immigrant terrorists I identified crossed the Mexican border?

I didn’t have a good answer for Dan yesterday but now I do. 

Of the ten terrorists who entered the country illegally, three did so across the border with Mexico. Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka are ethnic Albanians from Macedonia who illegally crossed the border with Mexico as children with their parents in 1984. They were three conspirators in the incompetently planned Fort Dix plot that was foiled by the FBI in 2007, long after they became adults. They became terrorists at some point after immigrating here illegally. Nobody was killed in their failed attack.

Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer, Ahmed Ressam, and Ahmed Ajaj entered illegally or tried to do so along the Canadian border. Ajaj participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, so I counted him as responsible for one murder in a terrorist attack. Abdel Hakim Tizegha and Abdelghani Meskini both entered illegally as stowaways on a ship from Algeria. Shahawar Matin Siraj and Patrick Abraham entered as illegal immigrants but it’s unclear where or how they did so.

Based on this history, it’s fair to say that the risk of terrorists crossing the Southwest border illegally is minuscule.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.

Immigration II: On the Substance of the Matter

Responding to my immigration post this morning, my colleagues Dan Griswold and Jason Kuznicki have focused on the single short paragraph that touched on the substance of the matter. (The question before me, posed by Politico Arena, concerned mainly the political implications of the new Arizona law, given the latest Pew Research Center poll on the issue.) I quite agree with both that we’ve never had full control of our southern border (or any border, for that matter), but as Dan has noted elsewhere, when we had a guest-worker program in place, illegal immigration dropped by 95 percent – no small drop. And illegal, not legal, immigration is the issue before us. And Dan is right too that we’ve thrown a lot of enforcement at the problem in recent years, to limited avail, so it’s not true that Congress hasn’t done anything. What it has done, however, hasn’t addressed the real problem, the underlying substantive law, as Dan has often written.

I’m struck, though, by Jason’s unqualified comment that he can’t say he shares my views on immigration.” Really? I did say, I believe, that Congress needs to address the problem, including with a guest-worker program. And I also said that “It hardly needs saying that a welfare state, in the age of terrorism, cannot have open borders.” I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that.

Concerning both the welfare state and terrorism, Jason points to “remedies” at the far end of the problem. He writes, for example, that our welfare state is going broke anyway, and “compared to the damage being done by native-born U.S. citizens and their cursedly long lifespans, the immigrants’ overall effects are quite small.” (I won’t take that “cursedly long lifespan” point personally.) True, but in places where the welfare state issues are concentrated, like border-state emergency rooms and schools, that long-term national perspective isn’t the issue. Yes, getting the government out of health care and education might ameliorate those localized problems (that question’s for another day), but we can’t always wait for more remote problems to be solved before we address more immediate ones.

And that goes for Jason’s terrorism point, too. He writes: “Without the black market in drugs, we’d have a lot less to fear from terrorists, particularly on our southern border.” I’m all for legalizing recreational drugs. But I was alluding to Islamic terrorists, not narco-terrorists, when I spoke of getting control of our borders. Legalizing drugs (again, a more remote remedy) might have some effect on the coffers of Islamic terrorists, but it would hardly solve the terrorism problem. As long as that problem exists, we need border control. Let’s remember, for example, that it was an alert border agent who thwarted the would-be LAX bomber.

The Wall Street Journal’s Surveillance Fantasies

There are too few periodical venues for good short fiction these days, so I’d normally be enthusiastic about the Wall Street Journal’s decision to print works of fantasy. Unfortunately, they’ve opted to do so on their editorial page—starting with a long farrago of hypotheticals concerning the putative role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in hindering the detection and apprehension of failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. In fairness to the editors, they acknowledge near the end of the piece that much of it is unvarnished speculation, but their flights of creative fancy extend to many claims presented as fact.

Let’s begin with the acknowledged fiction. The Journal editors wonder whether Shahzad might have been under surveillance before his botched Times Square attack, and posit that the NSA might have intercepted communications from “Waziristan Taliban talking about ‘our American brother Faisal,’ which could have been cross-referenced against Karachi flight manifests,” or “maybe Shahzad traded seemingly innocuous emails with Pakistani terrorists, and minimization precluded analysts from detecting a pattern.”  Anything is possible. But it’s a leap to make this inference merely because investigators appear to have had fairly specific knowledge about his contacts with terrorists after he had already been identified.  They would not have needed to “retroactively to reconstruct his activities from other already-gathered foreign wiretaps:” Once they had zeroed in on Shahzad, his calling patterns could have been reconstructed from phone company calling records whether or not he or his confederates were being targeted at the time the communications occurred, and indeed, those records could have been obtained by means of a National Security Letter without any oversight from the FISA Court.

This is part of a more general strategy we often see deployed by advocates of expanded surveillance powers. After the fact, one can always tell a story about how a known terrorist might have been detected by means of more unfettered spying authority, just as one can always tell a story about how any particular calamity would have been averted if the right sort of regulation were in place. Sometimes the story is even plausible. But if we look at the history of recent intelligence failures, it’s almost invariably the case that the real problem was the inability to connect the right set of data points from the flood of data already obtained, not insufficient ability to collect. The problem is that it’s easy and satisfying to call for legislation lifting the restraints on surveillance—and lifting still more when intelligence agencies fail to exhibit perfect clairvoyance—but difficult if not impossible, certainly for those of us without high-level clearances, to say anything useful about the internal process reforms that might help make better use of existing data. The pundit in me empathizes, but these just-so stories are a poor rationale for further diluting civil liberties protections.

Let’s move on to the unacknowledged fictions, of which there are many.  Perhaps most stunning is the claim that “U.S. intelligence-gathering capability has been substantially curtailed in stages over the last decade.” They mean, one supposes, that Congress ultimately imposed a patina of judicial oversight on the lawless program of warrantless wiretapping and data program authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But the claim that somehow intelligence gathering is more constrained now than it was in 2000 just doesn’t pass the straight face test. In addition to the radical expansion of the aforementioned National Security Letter authorities, Congress approved roving wiretaps for domestic intelligence, broad FISA orders for the production of “any tangible thing,” so-called “sneak and peek” searches, looser restraints on existing FISA wiretap powers, and finally, with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, executive power to authorize broad “programs” of surveillance without specified targets. In a handful of cases, legislators have rolled back slightly their initial grants of power or imposed some restraints on powers the executive arrogated to itself, but it is ludicrous to deny that the net trend over the decade has been toward more, rather than less, intelligence-gathering capability.

Speaking of executive arrogation of power, here’s how the Journal describes Bush’s warrantless Stellar Wind program:

Via executive order after 9/11, the Bush Administration created the covert Terrorist Surveillance Program. TSP allowed the National Security Agency to monitor the traffic and content of terrorist electronic communications overseas, unencumbered by FISA warrants even if one of the parties was in the U.S.

This is misleading.  There was no such thing as the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”  That was a marketing term concocted after the fact to allow administration officials to narrowly discuss the components of Stellar Wind initially disclosed by the New York Times.  It allowed Alberto Gonzales to claim that there had been no serious internal dissent about the legality of “the program” by arbitrarily redefining it to exclude the parts that had caused the most controversy, such as the vast data mining effort that went far beyond suspected terrorists. It was this aspect of Stellar Wind, and not the monitoring of overseas communication, that occasioned the now-infamous confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital bed described in the editorial’s subsequent paragraph. We continue:

In addition to excessive delays, the anonymous FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks. FISA was written in an analog era and meant to apply to domestic wiretaps in the context of the Cold War, not to limit what wiretaps were ever allowed.

Forgive me if I’m a broken record on this, but the persistence of the claim in that first sentence above is truly maddening.  It is false that “FISA judges demanded warrants even for foreign-to-foreign calls that were routed through U.S. switching networks.”  Anyone remotely familiar with the FISA law would have known it was false when it was first bandied about, and a Justice Department official confirmed that it was false two years ago. FISA has never required a warrant for foreign-to-foreign wire communications, wherever intercepted, though there was a narrower problem with some e-mail traffic.  To repeat the canard at this late date betrays either dishonesty or disqualifying ignorance of elementary facts. Further, while it’s true that a great deal of surveillance has always, by design, remained beyond the scope of FISA, it is clearly false that it was “meant to apply to domestic wiretaps” if by this we mean only “wiretaps where all parties to the communication are within the United States.” The plain text and legislative history of the law make it clear beyond any possible doubt that Congress meant to impose restraints on the acquisition of all U.S.-to-foreign wire communications, as well as radio communications targeting U.S. persons. (The legislative history further suggests that they had hoped to tighten up the restraints on radio communications, though technical considerations made it difficult to craft functional rules.) We continue:

The 2008 FISA law mandates “minimization” procedures to avoid targeting the communications of U.S. citizens or those that take place entirely within the U.S. As the NSA dragnet searches emails, mobile phone calls and the like, often it will pick up domestic information. Intelligence officials can analyze, retain and act on true smoking guns. But domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours unless they indicate “a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person” or constitute “evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes.”

This means that potentially useful information must be discarded if it is too vague to obtain a traditional judicial warrant. Minimization is the FISA equivalent of a fishing license that requires throwing back catches that don’t meet the legal limit. Yet the nature of intelligence analysis is connecting small, suggestive and often scattered clues.

The kernel of truth here is that the FISA Amendments Act did impose some new constraints on the surveillance of Americans abroad. But the implication that “minimization” is some novel invention is just false. Minimization rules have always been part of FISA, and they exist precisely because the initial scope of FISA acquisition is so incredibly broad. And those minimization rules give investigators enormous latitude.  As the FISA Court itself explained in a rare published ruling:

Minimization is required only if the information “could not be” foreign intelligence. Thus, it is obvious that the standard for retention of FISA-acquired information is weighted heavily in favor of the government.

Similarly, the redaction of identifying information about U.S. persons is not required when that information is needed to properly interpret the intelligence, so the idea that analysts would have scrubbed mention of “our American brother Faisal” from an intercept of Taliban communications cannot be taken too seriously.  It’s not entirely clear what the editors are referring to when they say “domestic intercepts must be effectively destroyed within 72 hours:” Do they mean “inadvertent” intercepts of entirely domestic communications, or one-end domestic communications legitimately acquired under the FAA, or what? Either way, that’s not really consistent with what we know about FISA minimization in practice: At least as of 2005, it appears that “minimized” communications were at least sometimes retained in ultimately retrievable form, though not logged.  In any event, if I’m reading them correctly, the Journal is suggesting that NSA should be broadly sweeping up and retaining even the apparently innocent domestic communications of Americans, on the off chance that they might later prove useful? I can imagine being that consumed by terror, but I think I would be ashamed to admit it in public.  Moving on:

Meanwhile, the FISA court reported in April that the number of warrant applications fell to 1,376 in 2009, the lowest level since 2003. A change in quantity doesn’t necessarily mean a change in intelligence quality—though it might.

As it happens, I covered this in a post just the other day.  As a Justice Department official explained to the bloggers at Main Justice, the numerical decline is due to significant changes in the legal authorities that govern FISA surveillance — specifically, the enactment of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008 — and shifting operational demands, but the fluctuation in the number of applications does not in any way reflect a change in coverage.”  Finally:

These constraints are being imposed at the same time that domestic terror plots linked to, or inspired by, foreigners are increasing. Our spooks did manage to pre-empt Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators in a plot to bomb New York subways, but they missed Shahzad and Nidal Hasan, as well as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to bring down Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab was a non-U.S. person who didn’t set foot in the country until after setting his underpants aflame; there is no reason whatever to believe that FISA restrictions would have posed an obstacle to monitoring him. As for Nidal Hasan, investigators did intercept his e-mails with radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. While it seems clear in retrospect that the decision not to investigate further was an error in judgment, they were obviously not destroyed after the fact, since they were later quoted in various press accounts. Maybe those exchanges really did seem legitimately related to Hasan’s research at the time, or maybe investigators missed some red flags. Either way, the part of the process the Journal is wringing its hands about worked: The intercepts were retained and disseminated to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which concluded that Hasan was “not involved in terrorist activities or terrorist planning” and, along with Army officials, declined to open an investigation. Rending already gossamer-thin minimization requirements is not going to avoid errors of that sort.

The Journal closes out their fantasy by melodramatically asking “whether FISA is in practice giving jihadists a license to kill.” But the only “license” I see here is of the “creative” variety; should they revisit the topic in the future, the editors might consider taking less of it.

Three Steps to Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Congress can and should pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Any legislation worthy of the name would:

1) offer legalization to undocumented workers who have been here for several years, pass a security check, and pay a reasonable fine and back taxes;

2) create a temporary-visa program sufficient to meet future labor needs of a growing economy; and

3) enforce the law against those who still insist on working outside the system, but in a way that does not restrict the freedom of American citizens.

Reform would reduce illegal immigration by offering a legal alternative. It would tighten border security by allowing U.S. agents to focus on intercepting real criminals and terrorists, not dishwashers and gardeners. And it would expand output, investment, and job opportunities for middle-class Americans. Polls show a majority of Americans will accept the three-fold approach to reform. Recent elections confirm that support for reform is a modest plus with swing voters, and a huge plus with Hispanics.

This is an issue where both major parties can work together to fix our immigration system in a way that boosts the economy, enhances security, and expands liberty.

For more, see Cato’s research on immigration.